What if Hamlet was actually … a woman? That is the central premise of the 1921 film adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, starring Asta Nielsen in the role of Prince Hamlet.
The concept is drawn from an 1881 publication, The Mystery of Hamlet: An Attempt to Solve an Old Problem (available here at the Internet Archive). The author, Edward P. Vining, was apparently a railway engineer before he turned to literary criticism. In his opinion, the well-known contradictions and perceived deficiencies in Hamlet’s character could be perfectly explained by the fact that he is, in fact, a woman. “When God created man in his own image, male and female he made them,” he explains. The discerning reader will recognize that Hamlet demonstrates an essentially female nature:
Gentleness, and more or less dependence upon others, are inherent qualities of the female nature, and Hamlet possessed both. […] Where strength fails, finesse succeeds; and therefore Hamlet plans and plots. His feigned madness, his trial of the mimic play, are stratagems that a woman might attempt, and that are far more in keeping with a feminine than with a masculine nature.
Hamlet is hesitant, more of a talker than a doer, doesn’t really like anyone other than Horatio, and is not that keen on fighting. In the face of such a lack of manliness, how could a reasonable person not reach the same conclusion as Vining? Even if the Bard didn’t necessarily write Hamlet as a secret woman, Vining had uncovered the facts … and the subtext was all too clear.
It is not claimed that any such thought was in our immortal poet’s mind when first he conceived and put the drama into shape: the evidence is strongly to the contrary. It is not even claimed that Shakespeare ever fully intended to represent Hamlet as indeed a woman. It is claimed that in the gradual evolution of the feminine element in Hamlet’s character the time arrived when it occurred to the dramatist that so might a woman act and feel, if educated from infancy to play a prince’s part, and that thereafter the changes in the character and in the play were all in the direction of a development of this idea.
It may be based on ridiculous, reductive ideas about gender, but I admit that I got a kick out of Vining’s theory. In itself the genderbending concept is intriguing; Vining’s approach to it is pretty crackpot, but he is just so earnest about the whole thing that it circled back around to amusing for me.
It is also worth noting that there is a long history of female actresses playing Hamlet; Sarah Bernhardt (‘The Divine Sarah’) is the most famous example, even if it seems that she got rather mixed reviews. (A film version of her Hamlet survives; the duel scene with Laertes was filmed for the audio-visual Phono-Cinéma-Théâtre spectacle shown at the 1900 Paris exposition). This and other cases were of women playing a male role, though, rather than the genderbending of Asta’s version.
I like the idea of a genderbent Hamlet, especially in the context of a silent film. Adapting Shakespeare to the silent screen, especially a play that is so much about internal conflict and deliberation, is a big ask – presenting a female Hamlet forced to live as a man reintroduces some of the complexity of characterisation that is inevitably lost in the lack of soliloquizing, etc. And of course, it’s a pretext for the greatest Danish actress to play the most famous of all Danish characters. Asta has the acting abilities to pull off such a role, and with her slim figure costumed in androgynous garb, her face expressively made up, she looks the part of the brooding prince.
Asta’s Hamlet depicts events that occur before the start of the Shakespeare play, which starts in medias res. In the film, we get a prologue showing the Norwegian and Danish armies at war. During the conflict Hamlet Senior despatches King Fortinbras, but himself is grieviously injured. Back in the royal castle, Queen Gertrude has just given birth to a girl when she hears of King Hamlet’s mortal wounds; to preserve succession, she takes up the suggestion of passing her daughter off as a prince. However, Hamlet Senior survives, buoyed by the news. Upon returning he learns the truth about his child’s gender, but by that point the deception is entrenched.
The film proper starts when Hamlet is a young adult. Her parents worry about her solitary habits, and consequently send her to the University of Wittenberg. It’s here that she meets Horatio, who is from Provence in this adaptation. In the Shakespeare, Horatio was Hamlet’s most trusted friend, but here there is a bit more going on. They get an honest-to-goodness meet-cute, bumping heads in the lecture hall when Hamlet drops her pencil. Hamlet is instantly taken with Horatio, and we see her give him the eye …
Intertitle: “Provence must be … wonderful.”
She also meets Fortinbras, crown prince of Norway. It is awkward when you realize that your father murdered the father of your classmate. But Fortinbras is willing to make like Black Flag and rise above, and the two of them shake on it. Pals!
She also meets fellow Dane Laertes, whose father Polonius is the main counsellor of King Hamlet, and whose sister Ophelia is part of the royal court.
But as we all know, something is rotten in the state of Denmark. King Hamlet has died after being bitten by a snake. Hamlet arrives back in Denmark to a combination funeral/wedding celebration, her uncle Claudius having hurriedly wed Queen Gertrude. Hamlet is disgusted at the crassness and haste of the event, and withdraws.
Even aside from the central concept of a female Hamlet, this adaptation takes many liberties with the source material. I have to admit that I’ve never read the play (what can I say, the public school system failed me on this), but I did a bit of background reading, as well as peppering questions at my partner, who has read the play, while we were watching. (Side note: there is some amazing subtle trolling happening in the Wikipedia article on the plot of Hamlet). Obviously, all of the scenes at Wittenberg University are completely fabricated, and conversely other parts of the play are omitted or truncated. For example, although Hamlet talks to her father at his crypt and also in a dream, the ghost does not appear in the film at all; instead, the suspicion of foul play is planted by Hamlet having witnessed previous interactions between Gertrude and Claudius (who, it must be said, are not very good at keeping things on the down-low), and finding her uncle’s dagger on the lid of the snakepit.
To uncover the truth, Hamlet decides to feign madness. This means that we get some great scenes where Asta schemes, cackles, and generally causes mischief. Her objective, however, is to catch her uncle offguard and confirm her suspicions, while neutralizing herself as a threat in his eyes.
Another plot strand of the central part of the film is Hamlet’s interactions with Ophelia. Initially she brushes Ophelia off, but as it becomes apparent that Horatio has fallen in love with Ophelia, Hamlet steps up her game and flirts with her quite boldly (well, interspersed with pushing her away with her crazy behaviour). Motivated by the desire not to lose Horatio to Ophelia, Hamlet succeeds in winning Ophelia’s love.
It might be cute if it wasn’t so doomed.
The initial prompt for the Ophelia-Hamlet relationship came, of course, from Polonius. I found his portrayal bizarre. With facial hair seemingly inspired by the catfish, it looks like he wandered in from another set entirely.
Hamlet’s turmoil increases. There is a revealing scene in Act Four between Gertrude and Hamlet; Gertrude is unnerved by Hamlet’s increasingly erratic behaviour, though she is more concerned about Hamlet blowing her cover than she is about Hamlet as a person. The following intertitle reveals the inner conflict Hamlet feels:
It’s also the first time she realizes that Queen Gertrude was behind the deception that Hamlet is living.
I’ll skip forward now to Hamlet’s despatch to Norway with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The trip is to end in her death, but she modifies the text on the parchment to have Rosencrantz and Guildenstern killed instead. After greeting her as his old friend, Fortinbras is a bit perturbed as he reads the missive that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern be beheaded. Hamlet’s casual shrug of reassurance and then glee after they are hauled off is just great.
Meanwhile, Ophelia has gone crazy in the wake of Polonius’ death. Laertes returns to the castle to find her agitated and unable to recognize him. After she drowns herself, he blames Hamlet for the situation.
Everyone is familiar with the end of Hamlet, but again gender adds another wrinkle to the story in this version. In the duel with Laertes, Hamlet has been stabbed in the stomach area, and Horatio keeps trying to look at the wound, while Hamlet twists away and tries to keep her shirt semi-closed. After she dies, however, the secret is out, as Horatio’s hand finds her chest.
All of a sudden, all of those funny feelings Horatio has been having snap into focus, but of course, time has run out …
And he kisses her goodbye tenderly.
It’s a touching ending scene, but a bit out of nowhere. The way it is played strongly implies that Horatio has romantic feelings for Hamlet, but the rest of the movie portrayed the feelings as being on Hamlet’s side, while Horatio was in love with Ophelia. I guess the audience is to assume that Horatio realized how he felt about Hamlet once a heterosexual framework for those feelings was established.
I found Asta powerful and charismatic throughout the film. It’s a challenging role and she brings nuance, emotion, and humour to it. It was the first project she tackled after setting up her production company Art-Film, and the film was successful, if somewhat divisive to critics for its changes to the Hamlet story.
Hamlet was available only in black and white for many years, until an original nitrate coloured print was acquired by the Deutsches Filminsitut (DIF) in 2005. Hamlet was shot with two cameras and the copy previously in circulation (via the MoMA’s film library) was actually made from the export camera neg, differing in many ways from the German version (which can be considered the A-camera negative). The DIF used German and French distribution prints, which had both been struck from the A-camera neg, as the main source materials for their restoration. The Desmet method was used to simulate tints and tones. However, Hamlet also includes a couple of scenes featuring stencil colour; for these, therefore, the restoration team worked with scans.
This is a significant film, I think. Asta is worth watching in anything, of course, but below the surface of the film are some interesting ideas about gender roles and identity. Rather than just a gimmick, it’s an eloquent reimagining of a very familiar character.
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Hamlet. Dir. Svend Gade & Heinz Schall. Berlin: Art-Film-GmbH, 1921. Released on DVD by Edition Filmmuseum.